Turbines could start sprouting in waters off Louisiana and Texas within the decade

Louisiana oil workers built first U.S. offshore wind farm on East Coast. Can they do it on Gulf Coast?

By Tristan Baurick | Staff writer  Nov 24, 202 nola.com

Turbines could start sprouting in waters off Louisiana and Texas within the decade

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. – Bryan Wilson’s boat leaves a harbor before dawn and heads toward a sunrise shrouded by heavy rain clouds. His destination, 3 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, is barely visible until he’s almost under its massive spinning blades.

“Welcome to America’s first offshore wind farm,” Wilson says before taking a breath and rattling off a well-practiced series of facts about the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm. Its towering steel posts, each twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty, were made in Spain. The 450-ton generator units atop the posts are from France. And the hollow blades — big enough that Wilson has wandered inside them — were shipped over from Denmark.

This pioneering effort in renewable energy might not seem especially American. But everything under the waves is pure Louisiana.

“The foundations were designed and built in Louisiana,” says Wilson, the farm’s manager. “They’re each 400 tons, and we had them brought by barge all the way from Houma.”

The state’s contributions don’t end there. Six Louisiana companies, all of which grew out of the offshore oil and gas industry, supplied a small army of specialists — from designers and engineers to ship operators and marine welders — that planned and executed a large share of the $290 million project.

“We needed guys with experience, and you’ve got them down there,” Wilson said. “Building one of these on land is tough enough. Building it out in the middle of the ocean is a whole ’nother thing. It's a really daunting engineering and logistical task. But that's what the oil industry has been doing for more than 50 years down there.”

It might make the solidly red state blush a deeper shade, but Louisiana is quietly becoming a powerhouse in a burgeoning "green" industry.

Louisiana’s roots in offshore oil production have given it an edge in projects much larger than the Block Island Wind Farm. Offshore wind farms, some with 12 times as many turbines, are taking shape in six more East Coast states, and Louisiana companies are in the mix, supplying surveyors in Virginia, engineers in Maryland and shipbuilders for projects in New York and Massachusetts.

The Biden administration’s ambitious plans for combating climate change hinge on the rapid growth of the offshore wind industry. The president has signed an executive order expanding opportunities for the industry and setting a goal of producing 30,000 megawatts from offshore wind by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes.

Turbines could start sprouting up in the waters off Louisiana and Texas within the decade, giving the region’s ports and manufacturers a market that’s much closer to home. Offshore wind in the northern Gulf of Mexico could generate nearly 510,000 megawatts — twice the energy consumed by the five Gulf states, according to a recent federal study.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has made the prospect of wind power in the Gulf a key part of his new Climate Initiatives Task Force, which aims to cut statewide greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2025 and reach "net zero" by 2050.

“There’s no better example of how improving the environment and the economy can go hand in hand than offshore wind development,” Edwards said at the start of "Wind Week," a series of online presentations his office sponsored in June. “I want the Gulf and Louisiana to remain essential to our country’s energy story while also doing our part to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

The oil and gas industry was for decades the state’s strongest creator of jobs and wealth, but many big companies are pulling up stakes, shedding workers and abandoning oil wells at a record rate.

Joe Orgeron’s family benefited from the initial boom. His father built a prosperous business running supply ships to some of the first oil platforms that appeared off the Louisiana coast in the 1940s. But with work drying up in recent years, Orgeron began turning his fleet in the direction of offshore wind. Now the Galliano-based family business does nothing else.

A Republican who was elected to the state House of Representatives last year, Orgeron isn’t trying to save the planet. He’s trying to keep people employed.

“All of us that have been in oil and gas, we all need to look at switching to wind, because the question of ‘if’ or ‘when’ wind will happen has long since passed and gone,” he said. “Wind development is happening all up and down the East Coast, and it’s only a matter of time before we have turbines in the Gulf, spinning in our own backyard.”

New England wind, Cajun know-how

Eight years ago, Kirk Meche was promoted to CEO of Gulf Island Fabrication, a company that specialized in building the towering foundations for offshore oil platforms. It was a robust business, with more than 1,500 employees and five sprawling yards in Houma and south Texas. But projects kept getting delayed or canceled. Instead of going out to sea, some completed foundations gathered dust.

Meche was used to the oil industry’s ups and downs, but he could always bank on the eventual up.

“Lately it’s just been down,” he said.

About 15 years ago, before the shale oil boom in west Texas and North Dakota, about a quarter of all U.S. oil production came from the Gulf. Now the Gulf’s contribution is 15%.

Once Louisiana’s largest and best-paying industry, oil and gas now employs just 1.5% of the state’s workforce. In Houma and Lafayette, longtime hubs for companies that support drilling, the number of oil and gas jobs has been cut in half over the past decade.

Many companies never needed to diversify until now.

“We’ve all been looking for alternative means of generating revenue,” Meche said. “So we in Louisiana should be thinking, 'What part of this wind energy solution can we take part in? How can we be a part of this massive industry?'”

The U.S.’s offshore wind industry is a baby compared with the behemoth on the other side of the Atlantic. Pioneered by Denmark in 1991, the industry in Europe has been nothing short of explosive. The continent’s annual offshore wind energy output has quadrupled over the past eight years, growing from 6,500 megawatts in 2013 to today’s 25,000 megawatts.

Meche knew wind turbines would crop up eventually in the U.S., and they’d need foundations when they did. He struck on the idea of crashing a few renewable energy conferences.

“At the first one, we were the oddballs,” he said. “People were saying, ‘Here come the oil guys trying to get in the sector?’ We turned some heads.”

Meche caught the eye of the small company that had dreamed up the Block Island farm. Gulf Island didn’t make the single-post “monopile” structures favored in Europe, but it could furnish a four-legged, latticed foundation, also known as a jacket, that it had made so many times for oil platforms.

“When you look up, wind is a totally different technology. But when you get below the water, the needs are very familiar,” Meche said.

Around the same time, Orgeron’s company was hired by a scientist to do a survey off the East Coast. Word got out among the handful of offshore wind startups.

“In one day, I got calls from three different offshore wind companies wanting to utilize my boat,” he said. “I knew that if I didn’t see that as a strong signal, I didn’t deserve to be in business.”

By 2014, Orgeron’s boats were busy on the Block Island project. His role grew when an East Coast contractor had trouble installing Gulf Island’s foundations.

“What they were trying to do was borderline hazardous,” Orgeron said of efforts to try to drive pilings from an anchored but unstable barge. To finish the job, Orgeron brought in a lift boat, a common Gulf vessel that can drop towering legs down to the seafloor.

The East Coasters moved their barges out of the way, “and we nailed it down,” Orgeron said.

It was quite a team: a host of Europeans supplying the above-water turbine components and a bunch of Cajuns doing the rest.

“We had meetings with people from Louisiana, Denmark, Spain and France, and the only ones who couldn't speak English were the guys from Louisiana,” Wilson joked. “I couldn’t understand everything they said, but great guys to work with.”

Working in the cold, rough seas of New England wasn’t easy, but Meche said his fellow Bayou Staters adapted quickly.

“I call it that Cajun ingenuity,” he said. “It’s a can-do, will-do attitude.”

There was some complaining about the food, though. Rhode Island cuisine struck the Louisianans as painfully bland. The state’s traditional clam chowder recipe, for instance, skips the cream, leaving a clear broth that tastes not unlike hot seawater.

“Nothing was spicy enough,” Wilson said. “They kept threatening to make us Cajun lobster. Don’t know if I’d want that.”

The Block Island project finished up in 2016 and now produces 30 megawatts. It’s considered a pilot project, aimed mostly at demonstrating that offshore wind energy is viable in the U.S., but it drastically cut power bills on Block Island while meeting all of its energy needs, both for the 1,000 year-round residents and the several thousand people who vacation there during summers. There’s also enough left over to cover about 1% of Rhode Island’s power supply.

From oil to wind

The project was transformational for several Louisiana companies. Meche was hired by Morrison Energy, another Houma offshore oil and gas contractor, to do essentially what he did for Gulf Island: “I try to take the assets we have and convert those assets to support wind energy,” he said.

Orgeron started 2nd Wind Marine, a company that has designed a new lift boat specifically for the offshore wind market. The vessel will be able to carry the much larger blades that wind farm developers envision on the East Coast.

Edison Chouest Offshore, a shipbuilder in Cut Off, was hired by Danish offshore wind powerhouse Orsted to build the first offshore wind service vessel in the U.S. Big enough to house 60 workers, the 260-foot-long ship will allow longer work periods in deeper water. Its first jobs will likely be at three proposed wind farms off the coasts of New York and Massachusetts.

Mandeville-based Keystone Engineering has parlayed its experience on the Block Island farm into several offshore wind enterprises. Keystone designed the Block Island foundations, a task that might seem straightforward for a company with experience developing many oil and gas platforms.

“I wish it was that simple,” Keystone engineer Sara Ghazizadeh said. “But a big challenge is you’re applying a huge amount of load (with wind turbines) that you aren’t applying with oil and gas.”

Keystone had to develop new software, wade through complex European turbine design codes and test 20,000 scenarios involving waves, wind speeds and various other overlapping environmental conditions.

“Since then, our involvement in wind has gotten bigger and bigger,” Ghazizadeh said. Keystone has added more than 20 engineers and designers who work almost entirely on offshore wind projects. Keystone now has a renewable energy division that’s expanding beyond wind to solar and battery storage projects.

Orgeron said other oil and gas-dependent companies, from riggers to sling manufacturers, are starting to notice there’s good money and a bright future in wind.

“Not a week goes by that I don’t get a call from an oil and gas services company that’s wanting to get their feet wet,” he said.

Not all Louisiana companies have had the best luck with wind, though. Aries Marine, a lift and supply boat company in Lafayette, opened a division in New Jersey to capture more offshore wind business.

“I’m hoping that it will happen, but it’s been slow,” Aries President Court Ramsay said.

Orgeron, too, has felt the industry’s pace change in recent months. Investment in his new ship business hasn’t come through at the speed he’d forecast.

Part of the apparent slowdown for some Louisiana businesses stems from increased competition. European companies, which have had a 20-year head start and benefited from generous government subsidies during the industry’s early days, now see a viable market in the U.S. They’re entering the U.S. offshore wind industry with ready-built processes and business relationships.

“They want to use all their European buddies … and they want to do it their way,” Orgeron said.

If Louisiana companies aren’t getting as big a share of upcoming projects, there’s still plenty of opportunity in “downstream jobs” like surveyors, rust removers, painters and boat operators, he said.

Another bright spot on the horizon is the development of offshore wind in the Gulf, a region Louisiana companies could — and should — dominate, Orgeron said.

“There’s going to be another barrage of interest when it starts heading to the Gulf,” he said. “Companies here — they need to not turn a blind eye.”

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The Gulf of Mexico is poised for a wind energy boom. 'The only question is when.'

Study sees potential for 510,000 megawatts, double current needs of all five Gulf states

BY TRISTAN BAURICK | Staff writer  Nov 24, 2021 NOLA.com

In an old NASA building in New Orleans East, James Martin gently pats the side of an immense wind turbine blade that’s seen better days.

“This type of blade was the workhorse of the early 2000s,” he said of the scratched and mottled mass of fiberglass stretching half the length of a football field. Less than 20 years old, the blade is already a relic. “The blades we’re designing today are 2.5 times larger than this baby.”

Many of the recent technological strides that have allowed wind turbines to grow rapidly in size and efficiency have come out of this cavernous building in the Michoud Assembly Facility, a sprawling complex that built Saturn rockets and now has tenant innovators such as Martin’s company, LM Wind Power.

LM’s New Orleans facility is the only wind engineering technology center in the U.S. It has designed and tested blades bound for wind farms off the coasts of China, the United Kingdom, Massachusetts, New York. The list goes on...

“But nothing in Louisiana,” Martin said. “We’ve spent the past 10 years exporting ideas. We’d like to spend the next 10 years putting them in the Gulf.”

The Gulf of Mexico has long seemed an unlikely candidate for offshore wind development. Its winds are relatively weak until they reach hurricane strength, at which point they could be overpowering. While wind energy developers have swarmed across the East Coast in recent years, the Gulf has been largely ignored.

That is, until now. A recent federal study has recast the Gulf as a potential wind powerhouse. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory determined the Gulf has the potential to generate almost 510,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy per year. That’s twice the current energy needs of all five Gulf states, and larger than the potential offshore wind capacity of the Pacific Coast and Great Lakes combined.

In June, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the federal agency that oversees offshore oil, gas and wind permitting, initiated a process that will open the Gulf to wind lease sales by 2025. Offshore wind companies from Singapore, Germany and Portugal and large oil companies such as Shell are already showing interest in building turbines off the Louisiana and Texas coasts.

“The Gulf is ripe for clean energy, and offshore wind is a really clear opportunity there,” agency Director Amanda Lefton said.

The region boasts three of the top four states with the highest offshore wind resource capacity, according to the laboratory's study, which was commissioned by the federal agency and released last year. While Massachusetts was the runaway leader, Florida, Texas and Louisiana came in second, third and fourth, respectively.

The Gulf makes up for its relatively weak winds with other attributes. Its shallow waters reduce the need for tall, expensive turbines, and its warm temperatures and smaller wave heights are expected to make construction and maintenance relatively easy and inexpensive, according to the study.

What truly sets the Gulf apart is its primed and ready workforce. Many of the skills needed in the offshore oil and gas industry are directly transferable to building and servicing wind farms.

“We have the most attractive full scope of abilities for offshore wind in the world,” Martin said. “It’s part of the DNA here to work offshore.”

Louisiana companies rooted in the oil and gas industry helped build the U.S.’s first offshore wind farm, a five-turbine pilot project that began operating off the coast of Rhode Island in 2016. The Block Island Wind Farm enlisted steel fabricators in Houma, ship operators from Galliano and engineers from Mandeville.

As the state’s oil and gas sector shrinks, many more companies that serviced oil rigs could find work in the offshore wind industry.

“There’s a lot of potential in the Gulf because the supply chain already exists,” said Michael Celata, the federal agency's Gulf region director. “It’s really a key facet for offshore wind’s future in the Gulf.”

New wind farms would likely first pop up off the coast of Texas, which offers the Gulf’s best winds, but west Louisiana has some prime real estate in the shallow waters between Morgan City and the Texas line.

The laboratory's analysis included a hypothetical 600-megawatt wind project near Lake Charles. The relatively modest project, about a fourth the size of some of the projects proposed on the East Coast, could give a substantial boost to the region’s economy.

Initial construction would create about 4,470 jobs and generate $445 million in goods and services. Once constructed, the wind farm would support 150 jobs and an annual infusion of $14 million into the economy from operations, maintenance and materials.

Some offshore oil platforms might have a second life as wind energy substations or serve in other support roles. But the prospect of wind turbines tacked to old oil rigs is unlikely. Offshore structures weren’t designed to support towering and exceedingly heavy add-ons. Small turbines might work, but their energy output wouldn’t be high enough to justify their cost.

State business leaders are keen on the prospects of a diversified energy sector.

“We’re really, really excited about this,” said Michael Hecht, CEO of the economic development organization Greater New Orleans Inc. “It’s no exaggeration to say we’re at the onset of one of those rare moments before massive new investments that are going to change the U.S. economy in major ways.”

Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson said offshore wind presents “a new frontier” for employment in a state that sorely needs it.

“The idea that there are thousands of jobs possible — that’s absolutely correct,” he said.

Hurricanes and birds

Offshore wind in the Gulf isn’t without challenges.

“The biggest question is hurricanes,” Celata said. The Gulf’s long and active hurricane season presents hazards unfamiliar to offshore wind developers in New England or the North Sea.

But with the fast pace of innovations in the industry, Celata is confident solutions are in the offing.

He points to the explosive growth of turbine sizes in recent years. Design innovations and materials upgrades have allowed turbines to grow beyond what was considered possible 20 years ago. The largest of the new breed of mega-turbines is GE’s Haliade-X, which was tested at LM’s New Orleans facility. At 853 feet tall, one Haliade-X can produce as much power as three Block Island turbines.

Engineers designed oil and gas structures that withstood Hurricane Katrina and other potent storms, so there’s no reason they can’t do the same for wind turbines, said Sara Ghazizadeh, of Keystone Engineering, the firm that designed the Block Island farm’s foundations.

“Hurricanes aren’t a challenge we can’t overcome,” she said. “By the time we need [turbines] in the Gulf, we’ll have it figured out.”

Engineers are developing blades that can collapse during hurricane-strength wind. Large floating turbines, already in use in Europe, could be towed into a harbor or out of a storm’s path, Celata said.

Birds are another big question. More than 2 billion birds cross the Gulf each year on a migratory pathway that follows the Mississippi River.

There’s no question some birds would be killed by spinning blades, said Erik Johnson, director of bird conservation science with the National Audubon Society's Delta office covering Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas. But climate change is harming far more birds than wind turbines ever will, he said.

“The bottom line is we have to get off oil and gas,” he said. Emissions from burning fossil fuels are at the heart of dramatic climate shifts that rob birds of habitat and harm their ability to breed, migrate and find food. “With more offshore wind, there will be a net benefit for birds.”

There are worse threats to birds. House cats, for example, are blamed for killing about 2.4 billion birds each year. Automobiles knock out 200 million more, and pesticides poison at least 2.7 million birds each year in the U.S. “Wind energy will really be a drop in the bucket by comparison,” Johnson said.

Wind developers can take steps to reduce bird fatalities. They can limit the number of turbine lights, which tend to attract birds, and potentially shut down wind farms during peak migratory periods, Johnson said.

Offshore wind’s overlap with the fishing industry is an issue that’s already causing fights on the East Coast. Many fishers worry about turbines cluttering prime fishing areas, making large-net fishing more difficult and more dangerous.

Celata said whatever lessons and compromises that come out of the wind development process on the East Coast can be applied in the Gulf. He’s hopeful the transition will go more smoothly because the Gulf’s fishers are already used to plying their trade alongside thousands of oil and gas platforms.

Growing interest

Despite the Gulf’s challenges, offshore wind developers are already circling the Gulf in search of opportunities.

Nine companies responded to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's request for interest in possible wind energy leasing in the Gulf. Five are from Europe, including Total Energies, of France, which has invested $60 billion in renewable energy projects over the past decade, and RWE, a German company that bills itself as the world’s second-largest operator of offshore wind.

“We believe in the long-term potential of the Gulf of Mexico region for offshore wind development,” RWE said in a letter to the agency. The company said the Gulf has prime natural conditions, “synergies with its well-established oil & gas sector” and Gov. John Bel Edwards’ strong political support for offshore wind.

Ocean Wind, a venture backed by Portugal’s largest energy supplier, pledged to “repurpose” large Gulf Coast fabrication and port centers for offshore wind projects in the region as well as for wind farms taking shape elsewhere in the country “where the local manufacturing and port facilities are not as robust.”

The Gulf’s largest oil driller might want to swap some of its rigs for turbines. Royal Dutch Shell, the biggest operator, lease holder, and producer of energy in the Gulf, wrote a particularly effusive letter about the prospects for offshore wind development.

“The Gulf of Mexico has a unique opportunity ... to lead the nation’s buildout of an integrated renewable energy basin, with offshore wind as a significant offshore energy generator,” wrote James Cotter, Shell’s vice president of wind development.

Shell said it's already getting its feet wet with offshore wind projects in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.

A smaller oil company, Houston-based Talos Energy, offered more stilted interest, asking for more clarity about future regulations and potential markets for wind energy.

Although unsure about the “economic demand for offshore power,” Talos is “keen to participate” in developing wind farms in several areas off the coast of Louisiana.

The federal agency initiated its second request for information and public input on Nov. 1. The agency hopes the process, which ends Dec. 1, will clarify where to focus offshore wind development.

Celata said the agency is expediting the Gulf leasing process to meet President Joe Biden’s offshore wind development goals.

It’s an “extremely aggressive” timeline, he said. “It’s a four-year process we’ve compressed into two.”

Federal lease planning could conclude by 2023, followed by a five-year site assessment process. Turbines might start spinning over the Gulf as early as 2028.

But a lot can change over the next decade. A future president might not push offshore wind the way Biden has, or might even oppose it, as President Donald Trump did.

But several industry watchers say offshore wind has built enough momentum — and is generating enough money — to push through most political obstacles.

“I guarantee this will happen in the Gulf,” said Martin, of LM Wind. “Every body of water will have offshore wind. It’s only a question of when.”

Louisiana sent a 'strong signal' to offshore wind developers, but is it enough?

 New Orleans' commitment to renewable energy caught eye of growing industry

BY TRISTAN BAURICK | Staff writer  Published Nov 24, 2021

In late May, the New Orleans City Council passed a resolution that was largely drowned out by a local news cycle of hurricanes, the pandemic and the final rush of bills in the Louisiana Legislature.

But they heard about it in Denmark. The resolution, which requires its main utility to generate almost all of its power from wind, solar and other renewable energy sources by 2040, is just the kind of thing that attracts the attention of Orsted, a Danish energy company and the world’s largest developer of offshore wind power.

“It was a strong signal,” said Hayes Framme, Orsted’s government relations manager for North America. “It was a signal that Louisiana policymakers are looking for ways to drive down carbon emissions in their electricity sector. And that is enticing for us.”

Similar requirements, known as renewables portfolio standards, have been passed in Baltimore, Phoenix, Boise, and dozens of other cities, as well as 30 states, including California, New York and North Carolina. 

The standards have had big impacts. About half of the renewable energy sector’s growth since 2000 is thanks to state-level renewable standards, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The standards spur the development of renewable energy projects because they guarantee a market for the power they produce. That’s especially important for offshore wind farms, which can cost billions of dollars and take years to plan and permit.

Massachusetts’ requirement that its electric utilities buy a combined 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power is a big reason why the 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project is taking shape off its coast, with the help of Danish offshore wind investor Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners.

With more than 60 turbines planned during its initial phase, Vineyard Wind is the U.S.’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm and is expected to kickstart a building boom that could dot the East Coast with more than 2,000 turbines over the next decade.

New Orleans’ resolution was the first renewable energy standard in Louisiana. Under its rules, 90% of the power that Entergy Corp. provides the city must come from renewable sources within 19 years. By 2050, 100% of New Orleans’ power must be emission-free.

"This is the catalyst for New Orleans' transition away from fossil-fueled power generation and towards a clean and resilient future," council member Helena Moreno said when the resolution was adopted. "New Orleans is on the front line of climate risk, as we recently saw with the storms we had. The coast, the economy and our future depend on our bold action."

The council's action might be bold, but it isn’t especially big — at least from a wind developer standpoint. Framme said Orsted and other offshore wind companies would need similar commitments from markets larger than New Orleans, a city of 380,000 residents.

“What we’d love to see is Louisiana do the same as New Orleans,” Framme said. “Louisiana would create the opportunity for a larger customer base.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards has expressed support for offshore wind energy, but action has been slow to follow. In June, he hosted Wind Week, a series of virtual panels about the Gulf of Mexico’s offshore wind potential, and he backed a federal task force focused on offshore wind energy development in the Gulf.

Late last year, Edwards created a Climate Initiatives Task Force with the goal of drafting strategies to cut Louisiana's greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28% by 2025 and reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050.

In August, the task force released a draft “action portfolio” calling for a renewables standard that would require Louisiana to generate half its energy from offshore wind and other clean energy sources by 2035. By 2050, 80% of electricity would need to be generated from renewable sources, under the task force's proposal. The group's final plan is expected sometime next year. 

Until Louisiana offers stronger enticements, offshore development in the Gulf might lean toward Texas, which has strong coastal winds, a large energy sector and a renewables standard it passed more than 20 years ago. Texas also boasts more populous cities — Houston and Dallas among them — that have renewables standards.

“As offshore wind ramps up, and markets become a bit more certain with these (renewables portfolio standards) in other states, it turns what may be just interest into real opportunity,” Framme said. “It moves us more towards a willingness to commit resources to go after those opportunities.”

America's first offshore wind farm cut power bills, draws tourists

Off Rhode Island's coast, the air’s cleaner and the fishing’s better, too

BY TRISTAN BAURICK | Staff writer  Nov 26, 2021

BLOCK ISLAND, R.I. - A tour bus spills a few dozen people at its usual stop beside a postcard-perfect lighthouse at the south end of this tiny green island. But the tourists walk right past the 148-year-old Block Island icon and begin snapping photos of the slender, sci-fi-looking structures spinning out in the sea.

“It’s like 'Star Wars' out there!” says Sam Nelson, of Ohio.

“It’d be so cool to see them up close,” fellow Ohioan Sharlene Warner adds.

The country’s first offshore wind farm has managed to cut power bills on Block Island, supply it with a surplus of clean, renewable energy, and — as an added perk — given its tourism-dependent economy an unexpected boost.

“It’s been very well received,” tour guide Lisa O’Neill said. “Half the people on our tours come just for the windmills.”

Built in 2016, the five turbines of the Block Island Wind Farm generate about 30 megawatts of electricity. That’s more than enough for the 1,000 year-round residents and the several thousand people who visit each summer. The remaining electricity is fed to the mainland power grid to supply about 1% of Rhode Island’s energy needs.

Several Louisiana companies with roots in the offshore oil and gas industry played leading roles in the farm’s design and construction. Now, those firms are looking forward to the offshore wind industry’s growth closer to home. And the same energy companies that plan to build hundreds of turbines on the East Coast are now eyeing the waters off Louisiana and Texas.

How might Louisianans react when turbines start popping up south of Lake Charles and Grand Isle? If Block Island offers a hint of what’s to come, people in the Bayou State might end up with an even split between pride and indifference.

“I’ve always thought they were a good idea,” said Eileen Keenan, whose property overlooks the wind farm. “I think it’s great that Block Island is a showcase for what a wind farm can be, and a place for people to learn about them.”

Joe Coppola, who was hauling a clam rake and a bucket of quahogs from the beach, shrugged when asked about the wind farm.

“They don’t bother me,” he said. “Some people don’t like how they look. They’re not hideous. But I’m the type of guy where if I don’t like how something looks, I don’t look at it.”

Local opinion “wasn’t all rosy” when the wind farm was proposed several years ago, said Kim Gaffett, who served on the town council for almost 20 years.

There were concerns the turbines would loom over the island, marring its best and most lucrative attribute: natural beauty. Block Islanders are passionate conservationists. Almost half of the island’s 10 square miles are protected from development. Property sales are taxed at 3%, the revenue going toward preserving more open space. More than 30 miles of trail link the spacious parklands to several public beaches.

On a sunny morning, Gaffett, a Nature Conservancy naturalist, led a group of bird watchers through an estuary in one of the island’s wildlife refuges. They spotted egrets, willets, oystercatchers and ...

“An osprey!” Gaffett yelled as pairs of binoculars suddenly aimed skyward.

Wind turbines can be a danger for birds, but Gaffett isn’t concerned about the ones off Block Island. The wind farm isn’t on a migratory pathway, and the shorebirds and sea ducks common to the area fly well below the turbines’ blades.

“A lot of work goes into monitoring birds around the wind farm,” she said. “I haven’t heard of a single bird strike.”

Worse for birds are the fossil fuel emissions that cause climate change, she said. The wind farm is helping to change that. Plus, if disaster strikes, the wind turbines are not going to blanket the island’s beaches in oil. That’s what happened in 1996, when a tank barge ran aground and spilled almost 1 million gallons of oil, decimating the lobster fishery and killing thousands of birds.

“If a wind turbine falls over, all it spills is air,” Gaffett said.

Bird watchers and other nature enthusiasts make up a large share of the thousands of people who visit the island during summer days. When they’re not eating chowder and lobster rolls, they’re out fishing, hiking, biking and sunbathing.

The wind farm, located 3 miles from the island, only enhances the experience, said Mike Butler and Kathleen McGrane, a couple visiting from Rochester, New York.

“They’re so simple and beautiful,” McGrane said gazing out at the turbines from a cliff near the lighthouse.

“I’d rather look at these than an oil platform,” Butler added.

Michael Warner, of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, wanted to take the turbines home with him.

“I’d like to put them in Lake Erie,” he said. “You can feel good it’s not coal or something hurting the air.”

Block Island used to hurt the air plenty, Gaffett said. About 9 miles from the mainland and reachable only by boat and a small airport, the island relied on a dirty and obnoxiously loud diesel generator for all its power needs. For an island that prides itself on being “green,” its energy use was anything but.

“It was pretty bad,” Gaffett said. “We had to have a million gallons of diesel fuel shipped here every year.”

The generator smelled awful and frequently broke down, said Sean Mahoney, who runs a moped rental stand on the island.

“It would cut out in the middle of dinner and you’d have to do everything by candlelight,” he said.

Mahoney expressed a common misgiving about the wind farm: that it wasn’t the big money saver people had hoped.

“The bills are still pretty damn high,” he said.

Some islanders have a short memory, said Renée Meyer, editor of The Block Island Times. Before the wind farm, Block Island had some of the highest energy costs in New England.

Diesel prices soared and then plummeted just before the wind farm was completed, giving some residents the impression they would have saved money if they’d stuck with the old generator. But Meyer, a former accountant, crunched the numbers and found the average residential power customer had their bills cut by about 40%. Bottom line, Meyer wrote in her analysis: “Ka-ching.”

Another plus is that the wind farm connected Block Island to the mainland power grid. If the turbines break down, the island can draw from the wider system. Barring that, there’s always the old generators.

“The bills are still pretty damn high,” he said.

Some islanders have a short memory, said Renée Meyer, editor of The Block Island Times. Before the wind farm, Block Island had some of the highest energy costs in New England.

Diesel prices soared and then plummeted just before the wind farm was completed, giving some residents the impression they would have saved money if they’d stuck with the old generator. But Meyer, a former accountant, crunched the numbers and found the average residential power customer had their bills cut by about 40%. Bottom line, Meyer wrote in her analysis: “Ka-ching.”

Another plus is that the wind farm connected Block Island to the mainland power grid. If the turbines break down, the island can draw from the wider system. Barring that, there’s always the old generators.

“Fish here are guaranteed,” fishing guide Chris Willi said while steering his boat around one of the turbine’s yellow foundations. Below the water, its bright-colored legs were dark with mussels, barnacles and anemones.

“It’s an added bonus to be able to take people here,” he said as the immense blades quietly spun overhead. “It’s an experience you can’t have everywhere.”


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